The Republican Family Feud

Since it’s a slow day at the Capitol, here’s my column from our latest print issue:

Practically every elected Republican in Texas will swear up and down that he or she just loves the Tea Party. What’s not to love about the movement that re-energized the GOP and handed it a state House supermajority? But in truth, most traditional―dare I say establishment?―Republicans have an ambivalent relationship with the movement, to put it politely. Not that the Tea Partiers are the establishment’s biggest fans, either.

When the House Republican Caucus voted in a closed-door meeting to support House Speaker Joe Straus for a second term on Jan. 17, many Tea Party activists―who’d deemed Straus a wild-eyed moderate―weren’t about to let it go. As the lawmakers exited out the side door of the state office building where they’d convened, they were met by an angry mob who had spent months organizing, making calls and ads in the hopes of dumping Straus. “You will be fired!” screamed one Tea Partier, his voice already hoarse from yelling. “The people who elected you will fire you!” Another woman began chanting, “The eyes of Texas are upon you―now and for the next two years!” (Less than 24 hours later, Straus would be reelected House Speaker by the whole chamber, with only 15 “no” votes.) The raw anger and disappointment among Tea Party activists was already palpable. The question now is how long will that anger―on both sides―last?  

The GOP establishment likes the Tea Partiers, so long as it can control them. In the speaker’s race, the Tea Party wasn’t controllable. Now that they’ve lost their long-shot challenge to Straus, the movement’s leaders have a choice: Work from inside the party, cooperating with moderates and all, and risk becoming subsumed by that which is Grand and Old. Or maintain their purity, fight the establishment, and risk irrelevance. Decisions, decisions.

Kaufman County Tea Party Chair Ray Myers is ready to take the risk. “We put our heart and soul into this,” he sighed after Straus decisively won. Before we’d heard the outcome, Myers had told me this fight for the speakership was “bigger than the Super Bowl.” He now plans to go to San Antonio and help recruit someone to run against Straus in the 2012 primary. Peter Morrison, a hardline Tea Partier with a weekly newsletter, has gone one step further and promised primary opponents for everyone who supported Straus. With 83 Republicans to oppose, he’s got a busy year ahead. Others were more relaxed. “Once the election’s over with, you have to start working with the people you have in place,” said John Cook, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee and a vehement Straus opponent. Both Myers and Cook came under attack for their comments about Straus and calls for a “Christian” House Speaker. (Straus is Jewish.) But now, Cook said, differences are “going to get bridged, and we’re going to pass some conservative bills.”

There are risky choices for Straus and his allies to make, too. Traditionally, those opposing the speaker find themselves in the penalty box for the session. Straus could punish the 15 members who voted against him, putting them on, say, a new Dustmites and Mold Committee. That would leave the Tea Party without many powerful players on the floor. But such a move could backfire on Straus, leaving him and his followers even more despised by the activists. The speaker could also choose to forgive and forget. He could give a few Tea Party members powerful committee posts, hoping to bring the extremists into the system. But that approach could empower his enemies.
Whatever decisions both sides make, there’s another confrontation looming in the 2012 Republican primaries. We’ll find out then just how unhappy this marriage is going to be.

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Published at 8:49 pm CST